Tumbling the Pyramid

I actually expected to see it happen last year. With Michelle Obama’s focus on childhood obesity, I knew it we were in for a revision. Online the USDA claimed a planned update in 2010. Then I got word from a wonderful blog, The Table of Promise, the new American eating plan had been unveiled.

food_pyramid.JPGWhere do I begin? Suffice it to say that over a year ago I drafted a post containing a rambling rant about my disgust with the pyramid. Honestly, can you even imagine eating 11 servings of grains and then topping it off with those things sparingly used like candy, chips and cookies? Trust me, this is coming from someone who can polish off a box of saltines faster than the entire waiting room at an OB’s office.

It’s just not normal and it shouldn’t be recommended. Plus, the pyramid combined all food for a day as opposed to focusing on meals and snacks. It gave us reason to overeat. I can imagine my husband prowling in the freezer late at night, “but I need three servings of ice cream in order to meet my daily dietary requirements.”

The book that I’m currently reading, Switch, references the pyramid as a terrible example of how to create change. The visual of placing fats and oils at the top, causes them to be viewed as the pinnacle of foods in a hierarchy. It works for me since I do love butter but it’s not a hierarchy. Chip and Dan Heath share that in order to create change we must remove ambiguity and the pyramid didn’t do that.

Enter ChooseMyPlate. Christa has done an excellent job of pointing out some of the good things about this. It’s focused on a single meal. Dairy is moved to the side. 3/4 of the plate is made up of fruits, vegetables and grains. And I really like the first two bullet points under it; eat less and avoid oversized portions. In fact, in Switch, the Heath brothers point out that simply by changing the size of our plates, we’re likely to eat less. They’ve got a wonderfully documented study about individuals with big popcorn buckets to prove it.

Balancing Calories

  • Enjoy your food, but eat less.
  • Avoid oversized portions.

Foods to Increase

  • Make half your plate fruits and vegetables.
  • Make at least half your grains whole grains.
  • Switch to fat-free or low-fat (1%) milk.

Foods to Reduce

  • Compare sodium in foods like soup, bread, and frozen meals ― and choose the foods with lower numbers.
  • Drink water instead of sugary drinks.

Back in December, when we took the food stamp challenge, I outlined that better education is one element in creating a culture of nutrition on a budget. I think ChooseMyPlate is a good start. It gives some specific guidance or “scripts the path” that we need to take in order to become more healthy. But the second step is bigger. We need to devise a way to tell people what fits in each of those colorful categories. Remember the first graders that we’re yelling, “Pear!” when Jamie Oliver was holding up an onion?

What’s on your plate and how does it fit into the new requirements?

One Chosen Plate
Serves one
  • 1 cup black beans cooked
  • 1 cup of amaranth cooked (can use quinoa, barley, brown rice, or another favorite grain)
  • 1 Tbs olive oil
  • 1/4 onion, finely chopped
  • Pinch of crushed red pepper
  • 1 garlic clove, finely chopped
  • 1/4 tsp ground cumin
  • 1 bunch spinach or other favorite greens, leaves coarsely chopped
  • Salt to taste
  • Freshly ground pepper

In a medium saucepan, heat olive oil. Add garlic and chopped onion and cook for a few minutes until soft but not brown. Add the chopped greens and cook, stirring frequently until wilted. Add crushed red pepper. Stir in black beans and rice. Season with cumin and heat through. If too dry at this point add a bit of water or vegetable stock. Salt and pepper to taste. If desired, you can add a bit of grated cheese for your dairy side. Serve with sliced oranges.

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  1. Tammy,

    What a great post. You are right on. The pyramid was more to sustain the US food industry than it was to insure good health. The new plate is a step in the right direction. Needless to say the Beef, Pork, and Dairy associations are screaming bloody murder. I highly recommend the book The China Study – it lays it out very well including a lot of good research.

    It is truly a challenge to eat well when eating out. But when eating at home it is pretty easy to do following the common sense ideas you list here and that others have written about now for years.

    For most of us this requires changing a lifetime of poor eating habits and struggling against both popular culture and vested commercial and institutional interests that are highly resistant to this necessary change.

    Keep up the good work!


    • Thanks Dan. I agree that it’s easier when we eat at home. I did read the China Study and I found it fascinating. It’s just that there are so many people who did not read it and who will never read it.

  2. This looks fantastic, Tammy. Can’t wait to give it a go.

  3. I like this post. I was just asked to write a family meal planning article for a friend’s site. One of section was what should you include in your meals. I wrote without thinking about the new ChooseMyPlate recommendations but I think it follows nicely. Hope you don’t mind the length.

    “In order to get kids to expand their palate, contemplate serving a fruit and a vegetable with dinner. The fruit becomes a “winner” because everyone is happy that it gets eaten. As your kids become accustomed to eating certain vegetables, you can begin to substitute a winning fruit with a winning vegetable in order to introduce new vegetables in their diet. Eventually, you can regularly serve two vegetables with every dinner. For instance, start by serving grapes and broccoli with dinner. Once your kids become accustomed to eating broccoli you can substitute spinach for the grapes. The broccoli is now a familiar food that becomes the winner that your child will readily eat.”

    • Is it sort of a contest Jennifer? So great that you are sharing this type of information.

      • It is not so much a contest as there is NO contest. Your kids will happily eat a winning fruit and vegetable (compared to one they aren’t familiar with) and you are happy because your kid is eating a healthy food. Everyone wins because you stop nitpicking over what your kid eats during dinner, if your kid eats all of the grapes and takes a bite of broccoli, yeah!

        • Gotcha. I’m a little slow on the uptake sometimes. The concept of winning threw me off.

  4. Excellent post, I am going to print it – if I may – to share with my daughter’s class?

  5. I always thought the old pyramid eating chart was designed to fatten us up… like a feed lot. All that starch… I went my own way towards fruits and veggies, less meat and dairy… but I love my eggs!

  6. The smaller plate idea really does work. I only have salad plates in my cupboard now, necessitating a conscious trip back for seconds if I want them. I agree that this graphic needs more definition. So many people don’t understand what’s in which group. Where, for example, are the sweets (cookies, cake, ring dings…)? Just removing them from the graphic doesn’t make them go away.

    The book I wish could get into the hands of the masses is Michael Pollan’s Food Rules. The “rules” are simple and easy to remember and, as a whole, still allows for pleasure and plenty of choices.

    Thanks for another great post, and the Switch recommendation. I’m going to pick it up!

  7. Great post. I absolutely agree that the “pyramid” was broken and not providing the advice Americans needed to gain or maintain optimal health. On the new “plate” it’s good to see greater emphasis paid to fruits and vegetables, “meat” replaced with the healthier “protein,” and fats and sweets eliminated. I would also eliminate dairy; there’s no health-related need for it so it belongs with fats and sweets.

    The decades-old “pyramid” provided a mix of limited nutritional information and unrelated industry advertising, making the medical validity of its advice mixed at best. Its influence is likely partly responsible for some of today’s most pressing health issues, as well as for many corporate profits. To some degree I understand the USDA’s dilemma: if government wants to hire proven subject matter experts they have little option other than to hire from the very industries they are tasked to regulate. This has unfortunately led to the corporatist situation we face today, many government departments providing little more than self-regulation. It may be in our best interest to view our government as just another information source, and treat the information it provides with the critical thinking skills we apply to media, marketing, and other sources.

    • You’re spot on Rob. The pyramid was the result of lobbying and I understand that many of those lobbyists are disappointed (!) with ChoseMyPlate.

  8. Thanks for the shout out Tammy! I meant to respond to your comment Saturday, but the weekend rush got the best of me. Lovely article. I think we all have to discuss My Plate and the nutrition ideology that the USDA espouses because it is central to our food culture. And if we want to change our national food culture, we need the USDA to be on board.

    • Good to see you here and I love your blog. You put far more energy into it than i am able at this point and as a working mom, I know how hard that is. Keep it up.

  9. I no longer have kids at home, but my husband was a meat and potatoes man for years. When I got serious about eating more sustainably, I began to make things like arugula pizza and rice, beans, and collard greens (similar to your recipe) he had to try them because that is what I made. Lo and behold, he liked them! He was amazed. Part of getting your family to try things is to not offer anything else. I do think the plate is an improvement visually, especially for kids. But the process of changing the American mind about food (especially those who on a budget that won’t stretch any further) is going to be a huge challenge.

    • You’re exactly right Robin. I agree that in order to get a family to try things is not to offer anything else but more importantly, I agree that those on a budget, those who don’t understand what a vegetable is or what a whole grain might be need assistance also and it needs to be affordable.

  10. The new plate-oriented food plan is great. Thank you for the recipe, too. Blessings to you, Tammy…

    • You’re welcome Carol. I like the plate too but do believe that it needs to be supplemented with more and better definitions.

  11. Bonnie

     /  June 14, 2011

    I love the illustrations you chose to use Tammy and the general information in this article. Thank you for your enthusiasm in this area of food. The one thing I do differently with my children is I have them drink whole, organic milk instead of the skim or fat free that we used to drink. According to a nutrition class I took at Nutritional Weight and Wellness, children and adults who are at their ideal weight, should drink whole milk because it is a perfect balance of protein, carbs and fat. And, I think they feel people do not get enough of the good fat in their diet–especially children. Their website is http://www.weightandwellness.com in case you want to check them out.

    • I don’t dispute that at all. In fact, it’s a similar conclusion drawn by Christa at the Table of Promise. Thanks for the link. I saw that they recommend full fat as a defense against osteoporosis which is an issue for me. I don’t know enough about this topic so will log it for a future post.

  12. You beat me to it! I have an e-mail in my in-box about Choose My Plate and planned to do a post this week ~ I probably still will . . . linking back to here.

    We’ve been eating this way for years. Almost all our meals focus on fruits, veggies, and grains . . . with a bit of protein from nuts, seeds, beans, and cheese tossed into the hopper.

    For example, we’ll have a slice of pizza and fill the rest of our plate with salad, fruits, and veggies. Or we’ll have a plate with potaotes and 2-3 veggies with fruit for dessert.

    Glad that they pyramid has been overthrown! It’s about time.

  13. The plate is a much better visual and a step n the right direction. This would be a natural moment for communities and their local farms/farmers/markets to be brought together to start the discussion about better choices, and I hope consumers and suppliers can use this revised plan to make those kinds of conversations happen. Perhaps the plate will evolve to have deeper meaning and more detail as we begin to work from the ground up in promoting better eating. A work in progress.

    • Yes, a work in progress. I think it can be the basis for some conversations and I’m already starting to invent them in my head.

  14. That pyramid was crazy–overfilled with info so you’d overfill your plate. The very basic ChooseMyPlate is worlds better–straightforward. Understandable. And I’m so glad they are promoting Water, and Lowfat Milk to drink. No doubt those lobbyists are dismayed.

    • Yes, drinking water. That’s a choice that’s always been easy to sell in my house. The milk thing has me a bit confused and I plan to do some research into this topic going forward.

  15. I bet this is a VERY educational post for everyone! ChooseMyPlate is fantastic!

    Hubby and I have been following this way of eating for years, quite successfully. That isn’t to say we don’t fall into bad eating habits every once in awhile, but it is always relatively easy to get back on track. We keep each other in check and do not believe in ‘dieting’ (don’t even own a weight scale). It might simply be easier for us because we thoroughly enjoy cooking and we do that together. We even grocery shop together and discuss our meals! Can’t tell you the last time we ate ‘fast food’ (that stuff is crap). No foods should be ‘off limits’. I cook with butter and cream and oil but it is all in moderation. I grew up in a household where dessert was expected at the end of every meal. Not now. Eat a balanced meal and dessert isn’t necessary (but a welcome treat on occaision).

    If more people followed ChooseMyPlate, obesity would take a nosedive, good health would rise, folks would feel better and fast food places would be out of business!

    • I’m hoping that it does promote some change. It is a good start and it’s so great that you and your husband are already down this path.

  16. Tammy, you just do so much good here! Thank you. I loved the ChooseMyPlate. I had always wondered about the amounts on the food pyramid, and how people could eat that much. Right now I eat too much in that top section. Pray for me! ha!

  17. This has BEEN needing to be revised! Thank you EVERYBODY and thanks Tammy for spreading the word. The more I learn about nutrition the more ‘Stone Age’ that pyramid gets. 🙂

    • Yep, it was confusing and difficult. I think the plate is much easier to work with.

  18. While training for a 1/2 marathon I’ve been very aware of how and what I eat. I can see how much junk I’ve allowed to creep back into my diet. There’s nothing like looking at yourself with fresh eyes.

    • 1/2 marathon? That’s impressive Tess. I’m not much of a runner. Keep a journal of how what you eat affects your running. You’ll find it fascinating.

  19. Fabulous articie, Tammy. Please, world, take notice!

    My body was so acidic about 4 years ago that my toe nails began to host fungus. I was horrified. My doctor told me about the meds – that are a direct threat to one’s liver!

    I went to an alkaline life style which cut out most foods containing sugar. I had to quickly learn which foods are alkaline and which are acid. My plate can look like the one you have posted, but in addition, I keep alkaline/acid servings at a 75%/25% relationship.

    This means I can be a meat eater, vegetarian, vegen, or whatever – as long as I keep the balance of the five food categories in the 75/25 ratio. I’m 95% vegetarian and am amazed at what I’m learning about raw food and raw food preparation.

    I very seldom eat processed food and am careful how I mix food groups. My body really lets me know when I screw up. I ignored it for so many years that its a pleasure making amends to it by feeding it well.

    The conversion process was are more interesting than I expected. I really had to begin a new relationship with my body. I am much more in tune with my body’s messages than ever before. I shake my head at how “asleep” I was before.

    The really great news – all the nail fungus is gone!! I am so grateful.

    • I’ve dabbled in this Amy but I do think that there are tremendous benefits to eating more alkaline. Did you know that it is said that it also increases your abilities as an intuitive? When I have more time, I’d like to do more with raw food.

  20. I like that the plate says protein instead of meat. There are many and varied protein sources available to modern humans, most of which are lower in fats and cholesterol than animal proteins. Choosing only meats instead of a variety of protein sources is an unhealthy (and largely Western) way to eat.

  21. sharingbananas

     /  June 15, 2011

    One of the things I love about getting so much fresh produce from my CSA every week is that it forces me to create meals around the vegetables and fruits I already have. So, I buy much smaller quantities of meats and grains and make the veggies the focus of the meal.
    Great post!

  22. I’m too old to learn another food table. You think I’m safe to just go easy on the sweets and red meat and grains, eat lots of fruits and vegetables and stick to low-fat milk? 🙂

    • This post has caused quite a bit debate around the low-fat milk piece and plenty of fodder for a future blog post. Doesn’t sound like you’re doing too badly.

  23. Honestly: I hate that food pyramid! But I’m also not sure about the new food plate because WHERE ARE THE HEALTHY FATS??????? My favorite food pyramid will always be this one … http://www.einfach-gesund-essen.info/wp-content/uploads/2011/05/logi-pyramide_klein.jpg

  24. Will I still flourish on my current regime of seafood, fruit and chocolate? no, don’t answer that Tammy

  25. Add some greens and you’ll be in a good way!

  26. I’m a little amazed that people actually used that food pyramid. It’s been background wallpaper my whole life, but have never actually paid it much attention. I suppose I believe that anything printed on cereal boxes and such is advertising not to be confused with factual information.

    It will be interesting to see if any amendments to the new recommendations will come as a result of all the efforts of special interests.

    I’m not sure I agree with the Switch complaint about the food pyramid top of the triangle – to me that was clearly a quantity based location, not a priority based one…. everyone processes this sort of visual information differently – you’ll never get unanimous acceptance of any method of organizing information.

    I’m also not sure that this plate removes ambiguity either….

    • I don’t think the plate alone can do it. I think the discussion here has outlined an issue with good fats whether they be in whole milk or avocados. I also think this has to be supplemented with a lot of other information like specifics on what grains are. You and I may know but there are a lot of people who don’t and who will get sucked into whatever the plastic packaging says.

  27. Once again, Tammy, I really like your post 🙂

    However, I’m thinking that plate might be a bit questionable, in naming the categories at least… ‘Fruit’ and ‘Vegetables’ being half of the plate is a wonderful thing, really liking that, but I have trouble with that ‘Protein’ category. Only because there’s tons of protein in vegetables and grains, so having a category called protein seems somewhat funny to me.
    I get it, and I guess that’s a better name than ‘Meat’ because many people might have issues with that so this way it’s like a disguise or something, but it just seemed funny when I saw it 🙂

    • So, I think the non-meat eaters like that it’s called protein which seems to indicate that you can get protein in other ways but the folks who don’t understand those other ways will look at it and think “meat”. Again, this must be supplemented with other information in order to be really effective.

  28. I must admit, i haven’t read all your meny well-deserved comments to this post, but I remember the “Food-pyramid” (=”Mad-Pyramiden” in Danish) was introduced more than 25 years ago here in Denmark by the Danish COOP, and it was an excellent idea. When was it introduced in USA??? We got an updated version in 2011 here too, look here:

    Click to access madpyramiden_plakat.pdf

    Great post;-)!!!

    • Truels, the Danish Mad-Pyramiden is really very good. I can’t tell you how old ours was. I like the updated look of yours and I love that there are real pictures of real food on it.

  29. Yes, what were they thinking back then? You’d like to get the food pyramid committee in a room together and do a little post-mortem.

    I also love the new plate. Your pointers are excellent.

    Personally, I have been trying to fill up more on the salads before eating the meal, so less on the plate. Some of this is in my head, though. (wanting seconds when I am not at all hungry any more!)

    • Keep filling. I think the reality is that we need less food than we eat or than we think.

  30. Dawn

     /  June 17, 2011

    I love this version – the plate is a great visual for me and for my little man. I’m going to make a toddler version of the plate and (try to) involve him in loading up our plates at dinner time according to the ‘formula.’ So far he eats everything and anything (except potatoes, no to potatoes for some reason) but educating him will hopefully make this last a lifetime…

    • I was very successful with 2 of my 3 kids. They’ll eat anything. My third is picky but on the bright side, he knows what is healthy and what is not and has a genuine interest in becoming healthy. If only he could get past the cheetos.

  31. Good to know that thing are getting done in America. We have quite a different pyramid here, strange (healthier in my opinion as feculents don’t occupy the first place). http://elips.hug-ge.ch/traitement_suivi/nutrition.html

    A lovely recipe.



    • I have a hunch that pyramids like the one you’ve referenced an the one that Truels shows were here first and that they worked. We likely copied but were swayed by political interests.

  32. Tammy, always hoping that people will become more health-conscious and choose more life-sustaining foods. Tonight we ate black beans, brown rice, fresh corn, fresh pico de gallo and coleslaw. It feels so good to eat like this. I’ve also heard of the studies that we need to eat much less than we imagine. I know we need less protein than most of us think. Good article!

  33. Lisa H

     /  June 18, 2011

    The plate is awesome! I’m a visual person, so it totally makes sense to me. The only thing I would add would be pictures of healthy fruits, vegetables and grains…say, incorporate the beautiful Danish pyramid photos with the ChooseMyPlate outline. Regarding the protein section mentioned in the post above, you are correct to emphasize that not all proteins are meat-based!
    As always, thanks for the well written and informative post.

    • Thanks for reading Lisa and I agree with you about incorporating photos just as they did on the Danish pyramid.

  34. What a great post, Tammy ! So grateful with all you share. Your recipe will be tried this coming week. It looks delicious. Eating slowly helps eating less, I find.

    • Thanks Isa and you’re right about eating more slowly. It gives you more time to get “full”.

  35. Love the “choose my plate” idea. The visual impact is great and so much more helpful. And eating off a smaller plate I think works wonders in terms of how much we eat. All this “larger portion for a good price!” have ruined us in idea of what a real portion is.

    • I so agree with you. It’s one of my rants. All you can eat! Crazy because we have this sense that we’re increasing the value by eating more.

  36. I don’t think the pyramid was all bad – I have a friend who lost 60 pounds just by following it to the letter. However, I agree that having a single meal as the template is much clearer and easier as a visual. To be completely honest, though, I still pretty much think of nutrition in terms of the “four food groups” I learned as a kid in the ’80’s. I have serious doubts that it will ever change.

    • Interesting. In reality, I guess that’s the way that I think about stuff too. I do like the plate though.

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